What's it like to work in the Navy's Nuclear Power program.
June 25, 2007 2:17 AM   Subscribe

Looking for stories from anybody involved with the Navy's Nuclear Power program.

Last week, I got a call from a Master Chief with my Navy Recruiting District, who suggested that I change my school guarantee from Utilitiesman to one of the ratings in the Nuclear field.

If you've gone through the program, please tell me what it was like for you and what I should expect. What's the work like? What will I have to do to access the educational programs offered? What will I need to do to advance? What commissioning programs are available? How readily do the job skills taught relate to private sector work, both in and out of the nuclear industry? What should I do to prepare while I'm still in DEP?

Essentially, I'm looking for the things I can't learn from the recruiters or the Internet.
posted by concrete to Work & Money (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Just got out last August, so everything I'm telling you about School is ~5 years old, so things might be slightly different now.

I was an Submarine ET, some one else can fill in for the other rates.

After boot camp, you will spend some time in Charleston, SC. Electronics Technicians and Electrician's Mates spend about 6 months in A school (Can't remember how long Machinist's Mate A school is, but it's way shorter). Then everyone does another 6 months for Power School.

When you arrive at NNPTC, you'll be assigned a room with one other person. Two rooms share a bathroom. Usually, they try to pair you up with someone you will end up in class with, but that's not written in stone. For your first couple of weeks, you will be waiting for the rest of your class to show up, and doing busy work. You also get a Yellow security badge, which requires you to be in uniform at all times (even off base). Later, you can get a Green badge, which allows you to wear civilian clothes off base. Eventually, you get a Blue badge which gives you the privilege to wear civilian clothes anytime you aren't in class. If I remember correctly, the timing of what badge you got was tied to performance on Physical Readiness Test (or whatever they're calling it these days).

Class is 8 hours per day, 0700 to 1500 with time for lunch scheduled. After class, depending on academic performance, you will be required to spend anywhere from 0 to 8 hours a night in 'Night Study' doing homework/studying. There are instructors available to help with the material if needed. Also there are designated 'Quiet Study' and 'Group Study' rooms. Each night someone from your class will be designated 'Study Watch' and is supposed to keep order in the classroom.

Power School is the same routine as A school, but different material. There is some time between them, as you wait for enough people to graduate A school to fill your Power School class, and wait for your security clearance so you can continue. If you have really bad credit or you have close ties to foreign countries, this can take a very long time, or it may not happen at all.

After Power School, you will be given the choice, based on class standing, on where you would like to go for prototype. Your choices are Saratoga Springs/Ballston Spa, New York and Charleston. I chose New York, but other people choose to stay in Charleston, if they liked the area or they are married and don't want to move their family twice in 6 months. Prototype is 6 months of rotating 8 hour shiftwork plus study time. Most of this time is a blur to me, as this stage of the pipeline is intended to put you under some stress, and make the ones who don't take stress well fail out. I remember spending a lot of time in a study desk (the ones with 'blinders' on the sides so things to the sides don't distract you). The point of your studying is to go to staff instructors and be verbally quizzed on the information you were just studying (called a 'checkout'). The only materials you will be allowed to use are typically a calculator and a whiteboard. The instructors are the main cause of the above mentioned stress as they can be dicks about the material. Eventually you will have enough 'checkouts' to go in the engine room and start on-watch training. You will get to operate a reactor under close staff supervision.

I have to get ready for work, so I'll drop in a little later to fill in some more. Also, my E-mail is in my profile.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 5:23 AM on June 25, 2007

Best answer: That pretty much sounds exactly like my experience in 1992, except some of the cities were different then.
I went thru when everything was still in Orlando.

Prepare for long hours, and little social life while in school. Stress is a killer, and any relationship you are having once you start will probably suffer quite a bit.

Being on a sub sucked while doing it, but now afterwards and looking back, it was really awesome.
posted by whoda at 6:56 AM on June 25, 2007

In another thread, ArgentCorvid told me that the Navy has changed quite a bit since my father went through it but I'll relate a little bit of what I know.

My father went through the civilian side in Idaho Falls and taught there for about a year. He had served previously in the Navy and he went to Idaho after graduating with an Electrical Engineering degree.

From what he told me, the program was very rigorous and the most intense academic program he went through. The stress was very high, I believe there was one suicide while he was there. He felt it was by far the best engineering training that he knew of. My father generally had a low opinion of most engineer's capabilities, but he never said anything derogatory about those he knew in the Navy program. As far as jobs go, from what I hear, and I am not an engineer, there appears to be a big difference between those with an engineering degree and those without. We know a guy, who lives close to a major metropolitan area who is a Navy nuclear program graduate with no degree, who couldn't find a job closer than a 90 minute commute. My father worked at a variety of power plants but primarily nuclear. Again, from what ArgentCorvid said in the other thread, it sounds like the program has lost a fair bit of prestige. If so, I am sure this is known to those in the industry.
posted by BigSky at 7:51 AM on June 25, 2007

Best answer: Remember that your contract is six years active (2 years of school and 4 years in the fleet) and two years inactive. Just an FYI.

I was in around the same time as ArgentCorvid, so the same commentary applies. I don't remember the badge color being tied to PRT status but rather to concrete time schedules.

Some things that stick in my mind: do not go to Level 2 (a club) and do not go into the opposite gender barracks / quarters, lest you lose privileges. Also, while NNPTC is now part of the "kinder, gentler" Navy, the instructors definitely want to see hard work on your part -- this can help your standings if you get into academic trouble. Good grades and good PRT scores can make your life easier. Keeping your quarters clean will also go a long way to making your life easier.

Charleston is nice but extremely hot. The NNPTC part of the base is quite nice, but a bit isolated. Buying a car means getting off base, but people make a second job of ferrying others off-base, so don't feel compelled to have a vehicle.

The stress will definitely make people a little weird, so keep an eye on yourself. NNPTC is also... incredibly nerdy due to the nature of the school, so you'll have the usual suspects who avoid bathing and play far too much WoW (fine, but don't let that interfere with school).

On an additional note, the commissioning opportunities are excellent within the community. I, and most of my friends from NNPTC ended up in some sort of program: USNA, STA-21, and various cross-commissioning opportunities. I would encourage you to seek out leadership opportunities when you can.
posted by ntartifex at 8:25 AM on June 25, 2007

My ex was a nuke (ET), on the Enterprise, and he basically says:

The school sucks. It is stressful, difficult, etc. I believe there was a suicide in his class, too.

The work is boring. It's not terribly safe, but that's a lot of the Navy anyway.

Job prospects in the nuclear industry after are great, because almost everyone with nuclear training comes straight from the Navy. Depending on what you're comfortable with, you can work in a nice location and make a decent salary, or go back to the middle east as a civilian and make a boat load in a very short time.... But... that's only if you want to keep staring at gray panels, which really no one does after that long. Outside of the nuclear field, prospects are not that amazingly great.

Because there aren't enough nukes:

Once you're a nuke, in the Navy, there is no way to become a non-nuke in the Navy. They will tell you before hand that they can switch you to something else if you don't like it, but that is a dirty lie.

You'll commonly be on a faster shift rotation then the rest of the ship. Five and dimes, five and fifteen...

I think (just my memory) that the enlistment for a nuke is longer then normal (from what I recall, very fuzzy memory, normal is 4 years and nukes are 6). They'll also offer you a reenlistment bonus after you've been at sea for about 4-6 months, before you're really accustomed to what it's like--do not take it. It is the norm to see people going crazy because they could have been out now but they've still got two more years because they were an idiot and reenlisted right away. Being in for 10 years (two reenlistment bonuses) is not uncommon.

Good things: You've got good prospects for advancing through the ranks. You should start out higher, and get higher, with just a little ass kissing for quals. And like I said previously, if you can cope with the suck of staring at panels for long periods of time, you can make a lot of money fast after you get out.

Anyway, I'll try and get him to write some more this evening. Hope this helps.
posted by anaelith at 8:41 AM on June 25, 2007

I don't know anything about the program itself but a family friend graduated from it back in the early '70's. He has since worked in upper-level executive positions in energy companies making mid to high 6-figure salaries. But the downside of this work has been continuous upheaval of his employment -- changing jobs every few years and moving his family across the country...to another extremely large house and selling old and buying a new vacation home nearer his new location. Of course this says as much about his business acumen and the nuclear/energy industry as it does his education, but it seems that working on the sub and learning nuclear technology can set you up for some sort of economic success.
posted by iurodivii at 9:16 AM on June 25, 2007

Best answer: Ok, Let's see...

Ntartiflex is right about the bit about effort paying off. The instructors will bend over backwards for you if you don't understand something, and are putting in the effort and ask for help. They are much less willing to help you though, if you have a reputation for slacking off. The nerdiness of NNPTC is legendary. Nerds+stress = WTF.

As for what BigSky is talking about, the reputation of the Nuclear pipeline is that it is very good at weeding out those who are not suited for the job. I guess it still is, but there was a big push to reduce student attrition while I was in. This included a sort of unofficial lowering of standards, so that more people would get through. I'm not really sure how many people got through that shouldn't have, but I know I met at least 2 on my ship. Ask the Master Chief recruiter about the old way they did the selection for the nuclear rates, it was much more effective, but weeded out a lot of people that could have been effective.

What anaelith said about not changing to another rate is mostly true. If you have enough willpower and charisma to convince everyone in your chain of command that you either are or feel that you are unsafe to operate a reactor, you can get de-nuked. They will make it sound like it is a punishment, but if you have the balls to do it, it's your only chance. The confidence you display in your own abilities and that your co-workers have in you is everything in nuclear power.

As a Nuke you will be the target of hate and discrimination from non-nukes, because of all the 'special treatment' and 'extra pay' that you get. Never mind that the extra pay is about $200/month and the special treatment is usually in the form of having more work to do than everyone else on the ship.

You don't get to choose which rate in the nuclear field you go into. That is determined by 1) The Needs of The Navy 2) your ASVAB/NFQT score 3) your preference. The navy typically needs more mechanics and electricians than ET's. You choose your preference while in boot camp.

Advancement: It really depends on what rate you get and if you choose subs or not. During the last advancement cycle before I left last August, there were 2 out of ~200 eligible Submarine Nuke ETs that did not get advanced to 1st Class Petty Officer. The lower ranks were similar. To make 1st in < 6 years, all I had to do was put my name on the test, and not go to mast. They were beginning to change the system when I left, but it hadn't affected me by the time I left. If you don't screw up during School, you will get to the fleet as a 3rd Class, and that buys you out of a lot of bullshit the lower ranks have to put up with.

All exams throughout the program are either Essay, or Oral. The only multiple choice test you will see again will be your advancement exam.

Educational Opportunities: You will typically have to wait until you are qualified your Senior in-rate Watchstation (about 1 year after you get to the ship), before your command will approve any school. I went to a couple of navy schools and took a few correspondence classes, but didn't have what it took to finish a degree while I was in.

Commissioning: I'm not sure. Seeing as I was mediocre at best in my 'military bearing', I wasn't encouraged to put a package in. Lots of other people seemed to have good luck with it though.

Jobs after getting out: The world is basically open to you. I posted my resume on monster, and had companies fighting for my attention (not just power industry either). There are also headhunting companies that specialize in finding jobs for ex-nukes, at no cost to you. The job skills that translates the best are: being able to follow written directions, even if they aren't 100% clear; knowing when (and who) to ask for help; being able to complete jobs without constant supervision.

To prepare: Be able to get at least 'Good' on all sections of the PRT. seriously. this was a huge stumbling block for me. I suck at running, and it was a source of constant stress for 6 years, because I was just barely able to run 1.5 miles in under 11 minutes. You can be held back in rank and/or booted because of poor performance on the PRT. Not to mention the extra workouts you get to do because the command has a duty to 'fix' you.

Throughout your stay in the barracks, your room will be subject to weekly inspections, to ensure that you don't have any contraband, and to make sure your room is clean and tidy. These inspections take place while you are in class. The inspectors are not allowed to unlock anything in your room, but they can open anything that isn't locked.

The workload, schedule and type of work once you get to the fleet are dependant on where you are going. I don't know how it works on the carriers, but I know it's very different there as opposed to subs. I will talk about subs from here on out.

While underway subs work on an 18-hour schedule. There are 3 shifts (called sections) of 6 hours each. You get woken up about 1 hour before your section's on watch time, where you have time to eat, shower, shave etc. Then you go on watch for 6 hours, where you tour a set area of the ship, monitor and operate machinery, and record gage/meter readings into the your logs. While you are on watch, you are not allowed to do anything that will distract you from your duties (read books, listen to music, do other work that needs to get done, etc.). You will rely on the person from the previous shift to provide you with any breaks you need, so it's best to be nice to him. The 6 hours after watch is reserved for working. During this time you will do any preventative maintenance that needs to be done, and any remaining time is available for qualification. The last 6 hours of the 'day' are yours for qualifying or sleeping. This cycle repeats until you pull into port, and has a way of screwing with your head.

Once you get to the ship, you are under pressure to qualify for watchstations, as the kind of work you can do is directly related to what watchstations you are qualified to stand. Also, the more people that are qualified a particular watchstation, the fewer hours each person has to stand in a particular spot and record gage and meter readings in the logs. If you can relieve a more senior guy for a break, they will have a tendency to go easier on you during your qualification checkouts.

While you are new (until you are qualified you senior underway watchstation), and before you qualify Submarine Service, you will be referred to with the derogatory term 'nub' which means "Non-useful Body". Nubs typically get all the shit work: painting, trash duty, the worst cleaning areas, etc. Although not required by regulations (being a Petty Officer), you will be expected to spend time 'cranking' (doing food service work: dishes, grabbing seconds for people that want them, etc.) for the cooks. They will attempt to make your life hell, because they can. This can be a useful time to meet people on your ship that you typically don't have much contact with. While you are working, you are still expected to make progress on qualification, so there is not a lot of time for sleep.

For your first year on board the ship you will be almost entirely focused on qualifications. Either for your watchstations, or for Ship's (getting checkouts on all of the ship's systems). The time that you are in Ship's qualification is the only time you are dependant on the Coners (people that don't work with the reactor) for anything, and they know it. Because the Nuclear field has a reputation of being filled with smarty-pantses, some of them make their checkouts as difficult as possible, in order to feel superior. During this time you will have virtually no priviliges (movies, seconds during meals, time off, etc) because qualifications are that important.

My impression of the jobs:
  • Machinist's Mate (aka 'monkey','mechanic'): Dirty. They get to play with oil a lot. Their watchstations are in the hottest part of the engine room, and also some of the coldest. With a few exceptions, their watchstations seemed to be the most 'sailor proof' of the three. The mechanics get to play with radioactive things a lot more often than anyone else. usually little contact with the more senior officers.
  • Electrician's Mate (aka 'wire biter','extra mechanic'): Dirty. most of their preventative maintenance involves lots and lots of carbon dust from the brushes used in the motors and generators on the ship. They have the easiest watchstations, but also own EVERY electric motor, outlet and light on the ship. Regular contact with senior officers, ususally due to failure of rack lights or galley equipment.
  • Electronics Technician (aka 'twidget'): Mostly clean. Not a whole lot of actual Work here. That is made up for though, in that as the actual person operating the reactor, they are the ones that are expected to know the most about it. Memorization of operating procedures, although 'not required' is par for the course. Expected to be able to draw specified electronic schematics on demand, from memory. Buddies with the Engineer and the CO. you get to see the Eng and/or Captain every time something you own breaks (which is often), because it is related to Reactor Safety.
I still have more. but the big thing is that they're not kidding when they say there is a lot of stress in the nuclear field. All the seabees (which you will be as a utilitiesman, IIRC), I ever encountered did not look stressed in the least.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 10:06 AM on June 25, 2007

Thanks, Argent. Purely in hindsight, I am so thankful for the fact, discovered in bootcamp, I do not deal with missing sleep in any graceful way whatever. So, no security clearence for me, and gee, they needed some smart people to handle the parachutes, etc. Parachute riggers (aka Aircrew survival equipmentmen) were, in the mid 70's, largely comprised of wash-outs from the advanced electronic and nuke programs. This change also included reducing my contract to the standard 4-year one.
posted by Goofyy at 3:48 AM on June 26, 2007

I honestly don't know much about what my dad did in the nuke navy in 1975, but after he got out, he got an excellent job with a large power company working for a nuclear plant. His hard work in nuke school paid for me and my brother to go to 30k/year college without any student loans, as well as making our lives comfortable. I'm thankful that he chose that path becuase it set us up for success.

I was bitchin' hard work, but he set himself and my family up for success with that hard work, and I wouldn't be the same person without his choice.
posted by santojulieta at 6:54 AM on June 26, 2007

After revisiting your question, I wanted to tack on something about the whole "de-nuking" issue. Aside from failing out of school, there are ways out. (Other than failing, or having mental issues.)

A classmate decided that he did not want to be in the Navy anymore, let alone be in the nuke program. So he declared himself an alcoholic and was eventually booted out into civilian life.

Another classmate had an issue with migraine headaches. I suspect that they were stress-induced, and he was de-nuked.

Back in the day before 9-11, declaring homosexuality was one way out. This method really pissed off my HM friends, because it requires a year-long batter of exams.

There is also the inevitable screw-ups out in the fleet that will result in a court-martial and a return to a conventional ET/EM/MM status. I know ex-nukes who ended up cross-rating to something else and having a very successful career, so this is not the end of the world.

PS. Your profile says that you are male. The gender ratio at NNPTC is severely skewed, which results in a shortage of girls. This complicates life for both genders somewhat -- namely the usual adolescent wangst and petty misogyny.

Good luck and keep us posted!
posted by ntartifex at 8:12 AM on June 27, 2007

Late to the thread, but I am currently a Navy submarine nuke (ELT).
Email me (in profile) if you have any other questions.
posted by ctmf at 3:58 AM on August 5, 2007

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